William Howard Gass, whose sensuous, deeply textured prose made him one of the most celebrated American stylists, is at once a leading theorist and a practitioner of postrealist fiction. The tribulations of life in the Midwest during the Depression, which were intensified for Gass by his father’s crippling arthritis and his mother’s alcoholism, inform the blasted environments and “grayed in” attitudes that are so prevalent in his fiction. As a child, Gass escaped into books. At Kenyon College, which he entered in 1942, he majored in philosophy and took courses from John Crowe Ransom, the high priest of the New Criticism, whose tenets of textual integrity and aesthetic self-sufficiency proved compatible with Gass’s own persuasions. He completed his B.A. in 1947 and entered graduate school in philosophy at Cornell University, where he joined a seminar led by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose ideas about language and reality Gass credits as having had the most important impact on his own intellectual development. In 1969, Gass joined the philosophy department of Washington University in St. Louis. His many honors include the National Institute of Arts and Letters prize for literature in 1975, appointments to PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and National Book Award juries, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation Literary Awards in 1997, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism for The Habitations of the Word in 1986, Finding a Form in 1997, and Tests of Time in 2003.
Fostering Gass’s absorption with such issues as the autonomy of art, the physicality of the verbal artifact, and the fictive nature of conceptual models was his exposure to writers such as Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Colette, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valéry, who appear prominently in Gass’s essays as precursors of his own preoccupation with the self-evident process of building sentences.
This theme is also evident in Gass’s fiction. Set in the 1890’s in the Ohio River...
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